The Daily: 1 March 2023

Lion and Lamb

March is upon us once again. An Old English name for March was Hlyda, meaning “loud”, presumably referring to the roaring March winds. This name survived as Lide in the West countries. 

Eat leeks in Lide and ramsons in May,
And all the year after physicians may play.
— proverb from western England

The month that comes in good goes out bad.
— 1 March in the Old Farmer's Almanac calendar 

Ducks wan't lay till they've drink'd lide water.
— Cornish proverb*

*Probably long after they’ve “drink’d lide water”. Ducks don’t lay eggs until there are 14-16 hours of sunlight in a day, and Cornwall doesn’t see 14-hour days until the end of April.

Theoretical question: If March comes in as a raging Frost Giant hell bent on freezing all life in its tracks, do we get lion or lamb by the end of the month? And what happens in April? These are the questions I am pondering as my cold, arthritic fingers struggle to type. There is, mercifully, very little wind with this slow-moving weather system. However, there is no sun either… and one wonders how that plays with renewables…

I’m sitting here surrounded by seed catalogs and books on silvo-agriculture and maple sugar. But forget gardening, we can’t even breathe comfortably in this near 0°F cold. Anyway, the garden soil is solid rock under two feet of snow — and counting. There is snow forecasted for every day this week. But in other climes, there is the hope of gardening. A friend in Tennessee posted a picture of blooming daffodils.

I may need to move…

In Devon the first three days of March were called blind days, so unlucky that no farmer would sow seed until the 4th. In Greece, the first three days of March are known as sharp days. If you wash clothes, they’ll wear out; chop wood and it will rot; bathe and your hair will fall out. Traditionally a March-thread is left out overnight on a rosebush then worn on the wrist for protection until Easter. This custom is sufficiently ancient that St Chrysostom complained of the ubiquitous red threads “draped on children” to protect them, and woolen threads to ward off evil were worn by the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries at Athens. 

Paradoxically, Greeks also regard 1 March as the first day of fine weather. In the Dodecanese, children go round with an effigy of a swallow, singing songs in honor of the bird and the fine weather it brings, begging for food at each house. This was also a custom in ancient Rhodes.

March has a long association with beginnings and new year celebrations. March 1st was originally the first day of the Roman year. Though the official new year was moved to January 1st in the 2nd century BCE, March 1st remained the de facto new year throughout classical times. It was marked by tending the sacred fire of the goddess Vesta and hanging fresh laurels on various important buildings in Rome. The Leaping Priests, or Salii, performed a procession in honor of Mars, chanting archaic hymns, which had devolved to nonsense even in classical times, and carrying figure-of-eight shields called ancilia, thought to have been the type of shield carried by King Numa, the second king of Rome.

March 1st was also the beginning of the official year for Venice. It was the Russian new year until the 14th century. March was reckoned the first month of the financial year in the Ottoman empire. The ancient Franks counted their year from March 1 until the 8th century. Sumerian new year festivals were held when barley was sown around the vernal equinox. Babylon continued this tradition, dedicating the first month of the year to their patron deity, Marduk, a rather martial god. Persians still celebrate Nowruz, “new year”, on the vernal equinox in March.

March 1st was also the feast of Juno Lucina, the goddess of childbirth. Called Matronalia, it was the married women’s festival on which they received presents and special attentions from their husbands. Of course, spring is still associated with birth even in our times — birds, bees and whatnot. The March Hare is mad not at the raving weather, as is sometimes supposed, but because March is the beginning of the breeding season for rabbits and hares — and many other adorably cranky beasties. For example, the Old Farmer’s Almanac claims that skunks begin to breed this week.

March is named for the Roman god of war, Mars, who sired the founding twins of Rome, Romulus and Remus, and is therefore the patron deity of Rome. The season of beginnings and new life begins with the month of war; indeed, Roman war campaigns began in March. But Mars has an older association, one that may predate Rome. He was originally a god of agriculture — and spring is firmly associated with planting season. (Though planting has no true season and grain planting actually happened in late fall in Rome.) So there is a strange contradiction embodied in Mars and in spring. On the one hand there is a focus on new life and growth; on the other the time of Mars brings war and death.

To add one more complication, the Roman deity Mars is cognate with the Greek deity Ares. Ares was a true jerk of a deity, being solely focused on war as a force of destruction and chaos. War under Mars, on the other hand, was seen as a stabilizing force — the threat of war brought peace. Now, Ares lends his name to the first zodiac constellation, Aries, which time period begins near the end of March and the symbol of which is… a sheep. The lamb.

March is like that. It is the season of new buds and sap, eggs and lambs. But it’s also the time of the Snow Moon, the Hunger Moon and Frost Giants. Warm green life and cold white death braided together in these marching days. Winter is broken, but summer is still distant. It’s time to garden, but I sure don’t want to go out there in this petrifying weather. 

Best wait on the lamb. Whenever he shows up…

St David’s Day

Dewi, whose name was Christianized into David, is the patron saint of Wales. He was one of many students of the 5th century “good magician”, Saint Illtud, the reputed cousin of King Arthur who created the blending of Celtic mysticism and Oriental asceticism that would become the Celtic monastic tradition. David’s monastery at Mynyw, which took on his name, St David’s in Pembrokeshire, was and remains central to Christianity in Wales. This bishopric developed into the focus of Welsh autonomy in the late Middle Ages, as Anglo-Norman influence began to spread out of Canterbury. Thus St David became the rallying figure and patron of his people, and March 1st is both his feast day and a day of national celebration of Welsh history and culture. Though it is not a national holiday, as St Patrick’s Day is to Ireland (because Wales is still colonized), this day is celebrated with parades, concerts and poetry competitions (or eisteddfodau) throughout Wales, particularly in schools.

And of course it is the day to “wear the leek” to show your support of Welsh language, culture and history. Most of the Matter of Britain has roots in Welsh soil and rock. The Mabinogion, Merlin, Arthurian legend, the resistance movements of Caradoc and Buddug, the famous college of druids on the Isle of Anglesey — all these are from the land now called Wales, though its more proper name is Cymru.

Welsh has an unkind etymology. Its oldest roots are in Caesar’s name for a Gaulish tribe in what is now the south of France, the Volcæ. This name was incorporated into Germanic languages and first was applied to the Gauls generally. Then it was carried north and applied specifically to the peoples of Britain, who were only similar to Gauls in that they spoke related, though mutually unintelligible, languages. As the appellation migrated north it was mangled until it came to mean “not Anglo-Saxon”, “foreigner”, even “servile” or “not free”. Mind you, these were the native inhabitants of nearly the entire island of Britain — many were urbane Roman citizens! — and those who were giving them this name were the actual intruding foreigners. But that’s English for you.

So call them their ancient name — the Cymri. This is very likely what Dewi, Rhiannon, Arthur and all the rest might have called themselves. It means something like “compatriot”, not unlike the words that Indigenous cultures around the world use to name themselves — We, the People.

St David’s Day also commemorates a battle between the Cymri and the colonizing Saxons. Around 630CE on 1 March, King Edwin of Northumbria led his forces against King Cadwallon, leader of the North Britons. To confuse his adversaries, Edwin dressed his army in the same red jerkins that the Britons favored. But the Britons got wind of this before the battle and hit on a clever plan. They gathered the wild leeks that grew along streambeds in the West Country and wore these bright green leaves to distinguish friend from foe. The Northumbrian ruse was thwarted and Cadwallon led his army to victory. Edwin was killed in the battle and the Northumbrians were routed. To this day, the “wearing of the leek” is synonymous with Welsh nationalism, though through time another early spring bulb has replaced the wild onion, one that probably smells much better — the daffodil.

Daffodils in a former spring garden

It is too early for daffodils here in the cold North, but as I said, they are blooming in the woodlands and gardens of more balmy climes. If you live where there are daffodils, or “Peter’s leek”, put one in your hat and remember the victories over colonialism — or, if you prefer, the billions of victories of vibrant Spring over Winter’s constraining Frost Giants.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

Magnificent Conjunction!

The Moon’s crescent, bright Venus, and Jupiter between them.
(Image from NASA found here, though apparently posted on Twitter and now flitting throughout the web)

If you don’t have a monstrous Frost Giant straddling your skies, go out about 40 minutes after sunset and look to the west. Venus and Jupiter are almost touching. They’re calling this the Conjunction of the Year, complete with capitalization. It will, no doubt, be a bright shiny thing on the horizon, a reminder that we’re all moving along in this year and winter will be over soon. And we are all moving fast! By March 2nd, there will already be visible separation between the two planets. From now on, Venus will be speeding away from the sun, higher in the skies, as Jupiter falls lower, closer to the sun.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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